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Freelance Secret #1: Work the Phones

NOTE: This column is the first in the series “Freelance Secrets”

By Calvin Hennick

Study the writers’ guidelines for most major publications, and you’re likely to find three little, daunting words: “No calls, please.”

Ignore them.

If you’re looking to break into a publication as a freelance writer, it won’t earn you any points to follow all the rules. Editors say “no calls” not because they have a better system for communicating with potential writers, but because they don’t want every person who stumbles across a copy of “Writer’s Market” to blow up their phones all day, every day.

The “no calls” rule is nothing more than a gatekeeper, an extra hurdle to keep out the wannabes. Sure, there are a few grumpy editors who seem to take actual offense when they have to pick up their handset, but in my experience, these are the exception.

Besides, your job as a freelancer is to pile up assignments, not to avoid annoying people. Once, I called an editor to follow up on a pitch, and she interrupted me mid-sentence. “I only picked up because I thought you were someone else,” she said, “now please, please, please, just let me go eat my lunch.” I never ended up working with her. But you know what? I already wasn’t working with her. She couldn’t somehow give me less work just because I delayed her lunch break. It’s a little bit like calling up someone for a date. Sure, you may be nervous. And sure, it may not go well. But what’s the worst-case scenario – that they don’t date you? Well, you’re already not dating them. So be brave.

Convinced? Here are some rules for when you pick up the phone:

1. Email first. The phone is for follow-ups, not for initial pitches.

2. Wait a couple of days. Don’t call three minutes after you hit “send” on the email pitch. Give the editor at least two days. Often, I’ll send the pitch a second time before I call. If you’ve sent the pitch twice, an editor might actually apologize on the phone for not getting back to you sooner. This gives you the opportunity to be gracious! “Oh, don’t worry about it,” you can say, “but now that I’ve got you, let me tell you what a fantastic story this is.”

3. Be resourceful. Magazine mastheads don’t have editors’ direct phone lines listed. Another hurdle! This usually isn’t a huge problem, though. Just call the magazine (or, if it’s put out by a big publisher like Rodale or Hearst, call the company’s headquarters). Don’t apologize or hem and haw when the operator picks up. Just say, “can you connect me with Joe Schmoe at Big Magazine Monthly?” Often, they’ll put you right through. But if they ask who you are and what you want, just tell them you’re a freelancer following up on a pitch. There’s no secret password.

4. Keep it casual. Use first names. Nothing screams amateur like giving editors the yes-your-royal-highness treatment.

5. State your business. Get right into it. Mention that you’re following up on a pitch you sent, and make sure to say that you’re a freelance writer. (Editors also get pitches from public relations people.)

6. Sell it. Be prepared to restate your pitch over the phone. Have a few new things to say that you didn’t put into your email. Be excited. Tell the editor about how fascinating the story is, the same way you would tell a friend. If you’re not jazzed about the story, the editor isn’t going to be either.

7. Don’t press too hard. If an editor says “not for us,” this isn’t the time to tell him why he’s wrong. If he says he’s in the middle of closing an issue and doesn’t have time to talk, say, “No problem. Talk to you next week.” And then follow up.

8. Keep the conversation going, even if it’s a no. Often, an editor won’t commit one way or another on the phone. If not, offer to shoot the email over again, and keep following up. If you do get a firm “no,” thank the editor for his time and promise to send some new pitches in the next couple of weeks.

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About the Author

Calvin Hennick’s travel writing has been published in The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Club Traveler, Budget Travel, SmarterTravel.com, Yahoo Travel, Northshore, WestJet, Cape Cod Travel Guide, and elsewhere. Recent assignments have taken him to Costa Rica, Tuscany, Iceland, Barbados, and Curacao. He prefers aisle seats

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